I'm going to start with the usual disclaimer regarding my WoW-position. I am neither a WoW-fangirl nor a WoW-hater. I think it's a great game, even though it does sit in the corner of the MMO world like the 800 pound gorilla everyone wants to either emulate or kill (or turn into a hunter pet). And I do think its developers know a thing or two when it comes to designing a game, even if the playstyle they encourage isn't necessarily one I always enjoy. I've played it several times, off and on, over the past 6 years, which is an experience most of the people I know share - I don't know many people who have played nothing but WoW all this time (though I do know a few), but almost everyone I know has tried, left, and returned to WoW at some point.
Since I hadn't played WoW in almost 2 years, I pretty much let the whole Cataclysm hype, beta and build-up pass me by this year. But though you can take the girl out of WoW, it seems you can't take WoW out of the girl: on Tuesday morning I woke up thinking Hrm, something's going on today, what am I forgetting about? It didn't take long for my Twitter friends to remind me. Tuesday December 7th was Cataclysm day!
In November 2004 my husband and I both trekked out to our local game store at midnight to make sure we'd be in the game as soon as the servers opened. We'd been in the beta and we really, really wanted to play this new game! And play we did - when we could log in, when the server was stable, when we could get past the queues. We'd been in the same guild for 4 years, since Asheron's Call and into other games like SWG, and we worked like maniacs to make the money we needed to help the founders get the charter and get the guild up and running. (I'm proud to say that guild is still going strong and raiding strong in WoW, 6 years down the line.)
I wasn't up at midnight this last Tuesday, but it didn't take me long on Tuesday morning to want to check out Cataclysm for myself. That was when I encountered my first hitch: seems my old account may have been hacked; that or I just changed the password to something really funky and can't remember what it is. Either way, the recovery function didn't seem to work for me and I couldn't be arsed right then and there to write to Blizzard's customer support. Long story short, I started a trial account.
Downloading the client took less time than I had pessimistically anticipated - hell, I remember when downloading 1 megabyte took most of the day and when modems beeped and burbled at each other audibly. Blizzard put in a streaming client at some point while I wasn't paying attention, and remembering the early days of the EQ2 streaming client this gave me pause, but it worked well and I was attempting to make a new character much sooner than I expected.
Nostalgia dictated that I should make characters on my old server, Icecrown (or Icedown, as we used to call it), but player volumes had other ideas; in the end, it wasn't until Wednesday morning that I was able to get onto my beloved, cranky, creaky old server. As with LOTRO and probably other free to play games, paying customers get first dibs at logging in, which seems fair enough to me.
Tempted though I was to make my old standby, that most hated character class, the night-elf Hunter, my friends told me I'd see more Cataclysm-related stuff (even without having purchased the expansion) if I made another race whose starting area had changed a little more. So I made a gnome Warlock: all hail Yshmysh, summoner of demons, eater of boar flanks, slayer of trolls!
I won't bore you with the details of the first 10 levels, but I did experience enough to want to write about it here. Every time I stop playing WoW I forget just how insanely polished the game is - and it's more than polished now, it's downright slick. The devs' stated intent was to use what they'd learned in the last half-decade and clean up, revamp, reinvigorate the old world that everyone knows too well and has done to death on a million and one characters, and in that respect they certainly succeeded.
The new gnome storyline is hugely fun, as the gnomes finally attempt to really retake Gnomeregan - it's filled with flashes, bangs, weird gizmos and exploding inventions, just as you'd expect from the gnomes. Within the first couple of levels you learn how to kill stuff - but in a guided, easy setting with lots of NPCs around to help if you get in over your head - how to clicky stuff, and how to use stuff from inventory (in this case, to teleport-evac a bunch of hapless gnomes back to the surface). When you level, the interface reminds you that you really should go see a trainer.
The storyline changes are quite extensive, and the starter quests have changed in consequence, even though the basic geography remains the same. But what's really been streamlined is the basic new player experience; and even though one might wonder who's left in the world who hasn't ever tried WoW, I'm sure there's a whole new generation of players out there who have never bought the game. I suspect that when they do, a large proportion of them will be hooked.
It's the little things that make a big difference. Now, when I look at my character's skills panel, I can tell what spells and abilities she's going to get at what levels - without having to visit the trainer. While that's a tiny difference overall, it's an example of how the game generally has been polished, streamlined and tightened-up since the last time I played. I may not ever have quit a game because the interface was terrible but it does affect one's enjoyment of the game - and if you have enough of those little niggles, it's likely to push you into trying that other game you've been eyeing. Iron out as many of the niggles as you can, make a game as easy to play, mechanically, as you can, and you may very well increase player retention - and that, as it has always been, is the name of the MMO game.
All in all, and bearing in mind the various trial account restrictions, I've had a really good time in the few hours I've been able to play WoW these last couple of days. Will I subscribe? Well... I'm not sure. If I don't try to recover my old account I'll have to buy the game and the expansions all over again, especially if I want to try out the new races (and I do). Then again, Christmas is coming up, so I'd have a ready-made presents list for the family.
The other things that bother me are the things that have always bothered me about WoW when it comes to my own personal playstyle: I'm not item motivated, I like housing, and I don't raid. Since so much of the game is about acquiring new stuff and doing instances so you can acquire even cooler stuff, I'm not sure if the appeal will last for any length of time. The cartoony art style isn't my favourite either, but it doesn't grate on me as it does on some people and it's definitely not a game-breaker.
So, as usual, I'm on the fence. Recover? Buy? Resub? I have a week or so in which to decide, and since WoW is a game I've played before a week should be long enough for me to see whether I want to shell out for it or whether I'll just enjoy my trial time and then move on. My characters (yes, I already have more than one) have made it to the teens, and I'll be hitting that level 20 trial restriction soon - but in the meantime I plan on extracting the most fun I can out of my playtime.
How about you? Have you played WoW before and left it, or never tried it at all? As I said the trial is really easy to get and get rolling, so now might be your chance to see what's changed, or to see what all the fuss has been about all these years.